Why 12 Year Olds Should Understand Your Comms

Let’s talk about language – which we always do in our media training. There was a really interesting conclusion for PROs to note about the use of language and concepts in communications from a research report published this week by the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) think tank.

The report found that Britons understand little about economics. Fewer than half understand what is meant by terms such as GDP or deficit; only a third trust economic data whereas almost half think it can and is manipulated to support any narrative. And this is an issue with highly educated people too – less than two-thirds of them understood these terms.

The report’s key conclusion though is “the solution isn’t that people should be taught economics in schools, but that statisticians and economists should become better at communication and should listen more to the public’s perception and their parallel understanding of the statistics.” Economists, the media and statisticians should try to understand better how the public understands words such as “unemployment” because differences between popular understanding and formal definitions can fuel mistrust.

Hear, hear.

This is not just about getting rid of jargon – the weed in the garden of language. It is about using meaningful analogies, examples and phrases that resonate with the audience and facilitate effective and persuasive communication.

In the case of the ONS research, participants made clear they were predominately interested in their own personal economy rather than the economy in general. So the lesson for Ministers and economists is to communicate in this context.

In our media training and presentation training, we counsel spokespeople to take care with their language. You need to communicate in terms the audience will understand and avoid throwing around concepts that while familiar and acceptable to you, may not be to your audience. At best they need to mentally process what you mean (so they’re not listening to the rest of what you’re saying) or at worst find them incomprehensible or objectionable (and stop listening).

Ah, you say, but my audience is specialist and highly informed! Ah, I say, like for instance the readership of the Financial Times? Many journalists at the FT have been taught to write as if for an intelligent twelve year old (tabloid journalists for seven year olds). This isn’t to ‘dumb down’. If you want to write an opinion piece for the FT, this is their official guidance:

“Write clearly and accessibly. Your piece should be an enjoyable read, not an academic treatise, even if it is a serious or technical subject. Avoid jargon and acronyms at all cost — they put off and confuse readers.”

‘Nuff said.

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